100 000 year old ochre workshop at Blombos
By: Christine Sievers, 14 October 2011

Excavated from layers 100 000 years old, two perlemoen shells (abalone, Haliotis midae) containing traces of a complex mixture of ochre, charcoal and seal fat and marrow, form part of a production toolkit which also included grindstones, hammerstones and a bone applicator. Whether the mixture was used for body decoration, skin protection or other purposes, these finds represent the earliest evidence of complex cognition worldwide and once again put Blombos and southern Africa at the forefront of research into the evolution of human cognition.

"This find indicates that people were capable of advanced thought at least 20 000 years earlier than was previously believed," said Dr Karen van Niekerk, a member of the team that recovered the finds. "They were able to conceptualise what they wanted to make, go out and collect the raw materials, create the mixture and use it."

"The find demonstrates that [early] humans had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning," said Prof. Chris Henshilwood, director of the Blombos research. "We know that most, or all, Homo sapiens are from Africa, and we're interested in their intelligence before they left for Asia and Europe."

For Van Niekerk there is a "lovely human touch" to the find: in the bottom of one of the shells one can see "how the person's finger stirred the mixture, and while doing so, a small piece of sand at the tip of the finger scratched the shell in a characteristic pattern".

One of the toolkits is on display at Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town in the Rock Art gallery. This kit is both evidence of and tribute to the ingenuity of the people who used them 100 000 years ago. The display allows the public to view these unique artefacts and find out more about their discovery and meaning.